Key challenges and opportunities
Aboriginal values and uses of water provide a cultural connection to Country and First Nations/ Aboriginal People are acknowledged as the first managers and carers of this natural resource.
First Nations/Aboriginal People have rights and a moral obligation to care for water under their law and customs. These obligations connect across communities and language groups, extending to downstream communities, throughout catchments and over connected surface water and groundwater systems.
The 2007 Echuca Declaration defines cultural flows as ‘water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, natural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Nations’.
The Government recognises there are systemic issues that need to be addressed at a state- wide level to better enable the exercise of First Nations/Aboriginal People’s rights and access to water, both within the Murray Darling Basin and in coastal regions of NSW:
- Cultural flow access - while there are some provisions for accessing water for cultural purposes in NSW, these do not currently meet the needs and obligations of First Nations/ Aboriginal People to care for Country or achieve the cultural water flows and water management aspirations set out in the 2007 Echuca Declaration. Also, policy settings limit the use of cultural water entitlements so that no direct or indirect economic benefit can be gained. Only seven cultural water entitlements have ever been issued, with only two remaining in use today.
- Self-determination and decision making - historically, there have been limited opportunities made available for First Nations/Aboriginal People to be involved in water policy development processes and limited co-management opportunities. While the water sector’s engagement with First Nations/Aboriginal People and communities is improving, as demonstrated in recent water planning initiatives in the Murray Darling Basin, it is not yet a mature, knowledge-sharing partnership.
- First Nations/Aboriginal People’s knowledge about the water management system - the water sector has not effectively worked with First Nations/Aboriginal People to develop and share suitable information about water institutions, technical information and regulations to support understanding of the complex water management framework.
- Water and culture - there is not sufficient awareness or acknowledgement of First Nations/Aboriginal People's water rights, values, interests and concerns in water management frameworks and little effective integration of First Nations/Aboriginal People’s knowledge and science into water management decisions and practices.
Several key pieces of work provide the foundation for the way forward including First Nations-led work developed under the National Cultural Flows Research Project. The Government will work with First Nations/Aboriginal People and organisations and apply the processes developed in the Pathway to Cultural Flows in Australia, Cultural Flows - A guide for First Nations and Cultural Flows - A guide for Water Managers.
There are also existing Government strategies that provide the principles and commitments for effective engagement and shared decision making including: Closing the Gap commitments; the NSW Government’s OCHRE Plan; and the department's Our Place on Country Aboriginal Outcomes Strategy 2020–23. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap is built around four priority reforms: building and strengthening structures to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share decision-making with governments; building formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sectors to deliver services to support Closing the Gap; systemic and structural transformation of mainstream government organisations to improve accountability and better respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and enabling shared access to location specific data and information to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations achieve the first three Priority Reforms.
The National Agreement also includes a commitment to develop an inland waters target that will measure progress towards securing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests in water bodies inland from the coastal zone under state and territory water rights regimes. This will include data development to identify a nationally consistent measure for inland waters encompassing, for example, water licenses, water rights and water allocation plans.
The need to improve the way NSW manages water resources to achieve better outcomes with First Nations/Aboriginal People has also been highlighted in several recent independent reviews including the Natural Resource Commission’s Review of the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan (2019), the Independent Panel assessment of the 2018/19 fish deaths in the Lower Darling (Vertessy Report, 2019) and the Independent Panel Assessment on the Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Event.
In addition, the Australian Government Productivity Commission’s draft report on National Water Reform included recommendations for a new objective and element of the National Water Initiative dedicated to First Nations/Aboriginal People’s access to water and involvement in water management.
Specific actions to improve outcomes for First Nations/Aboriginal People through the NSW Water Strategy are outlined in this section. However, actions across all priorities in this Strategy seek to deliver social, cultural and economic outcomes for Aboriginal people, and achievement of these outcomes will rely on meaningful partnership and engagement.
High-level themes for improved Aboriginal water outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin
Complementing the work led by First Nations and representative peak groups over many years, recent government engagement with Aboriginal stakeholders provides further guidance for embarking on reforms to improve the way we manage and share water. In preparing the NSW water resource plans, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment undertook a culturally appropriate, Nation-by-Nation approach to hearing from First Nations/Aboriginal People on water-dependent cultural values and uses in the Murray-Darling Basin, including over 52 workshops and 250 Traditional owner interviews across the Basin.
Common actions called for during that consultation include:
- Establish and enhance cultural flows by:
- recognising and providing for the cultural dimensions of water for Aboriginal people
- providing economic opportunities derived from water and access to water entitlements
- seeking shared benefits by using water allocated for environmental and consumptive purposes to deliver cultural benefits where synergies exist.
- Acknowledge that water is critical to the health and wellbeing of communities
- Enable access to Country to maintain healthy waterways and engage in cultural practices
- Embed culturally appropriate First Nations/Aboriginal participation, partnerships and knowledge transfer into water management and government decision-making.
These themes have been a starting point for discussions with First Nations/Aboriginal People about the regional water strategies. Through the regional water strategies, the department is now also working with Aboriginal people in coastal regions to understand issues and aspirations for coastal communities.
Action 2.5 Work with First Nations/ Aboriginal People to maintain and preserve water-related cultural sites and landscapes
The Government will work closely with Aboriginal communities to ensure that:
We will also partner with First Nations/Aboriginal People to explore programs and initiatives that will support Aboriginal communities to identify and map water-dependent cultural sites and record cultural water practices, where culturally appropriate.